Vinegar Syndrome preserves vintage smut with high-quality reissues

Joe Rubin has been collecting obscure ’60s and ’70s exploitation and X-rated films since he was a kid. In the late 2000s while living in Chicago he was approached by a company that wanted to borrow one of the prints for a new cleaned up (in quality) DVD.

After meeting some of the film techs involved he saw an opportunity to not only release his collection of cult gems but to preserve them as well. He packed up his prints and set up shop out on the East Coast calling his new company appropriately Vinegar Syndrome. The name refers to the decaying process of celluloid film — as the film stock decomposes it creates acetic acid and a characteristically sour vinegar-like smell.

Vinegar Syndrome’s first release was a collection of “wizard of gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis’s early soft- and hardcore films. “They’re not good films” says Rubin. “If you’ve suffered through all 92 minutes of Linda and Abilene you know there’s nothing brilliant going on there. But they provide the missing link in the canon of a major filmmaker.” One of the films Black Love was the only hardcore film Lewis made and used much of the same crew as his later horror films. “It’s a horrible film but one that I’m happy we were able to bring back even if it’s only for completists as a historical curiosity” says Rubin.

Rubin says many of the films in the company’s roster are in the public domain. This is due to a couple of reasons: X-rated filmmakers couldn’t take potentially obscene illegal material and register it for copyright and many of them were too lazy to bother anyway. So prints were stolen and copied and fell into wide circulation.

Then largely disappeared.

After the drive-ins and porn theatres disappeared there was no way to see gems like Anatomy of a Psycho and Vampire Hookers . Rubin says he has lobby cards and posters for films that must have existed but for which no prints remain. He adds that finding films is a bit of a treasure hunt — eBay estate sales and word of mouth. And there are tons of them. “We’ve acquired massive collections to bulk up our library” he says.

Vinegar Syndrome has shown a few of the flicks on film in theatres but Rubin says he’s very nervous about letting prints out. Usually he only has the negative or a single print. If it was damaged or lost there’s nothing to replace it. “We create DCPs of them” he says. (DCP means Digital Cinema Package; basically a digital file.) “For better or worse it’s the wave of the future. It’s sad because I’m a strong proponent of watching films on film.”

Rubin says most of the filmmakers are dead and that there are very few they can reach to work on a re-release. Some are still out there however — the company recently worked with director Wakefield Poole re-releasing his raunchy cult classic Bible . “We’re treating X-rated films with respect not looking down on them” says Rubin. “In the most literal sense they’ve got hardcore or softcore sex sure. But most important they were made on film and were meant to be played in theatres.”

Fans of ’60s and ’70s sleaze will have a chance to see a bunch of them when the company launches Skinaflix early next year. The online streaming site will feature hardcore softcore and exploitation flicks. “We’re really excited about it” says Rubin. “Considering how many films we have there’s no way to release them all on DVD or Blu-ray.” Vinegar Syndrome also has a new strictly hardcore DVD line called Peekarama featuring titles like Abduction of an American Playgirl and Winter Heat .

Regardless of whether you find much merit in films like Massage Parlor Murders and The Vixens of Kung-Fu they offer some important historical context for film fans. “That’s the crucial reason why we put X-rated flicks out” says Rubin. “Sure there’s a lot of dull stuff out there but there are also many fascinating films. They were such a reflection of the experimental climate of the ’70s.”

“Many of the filmmakers were unconcerned with the conventions of the era” he adds. “A lot of these films come from some pretty bizarre headspaces.”